Speak memory

Chasing Shadows: memories of a vanished world

Hugo Gryn, with Naomi Gryn <em>Viking, 300pp, £16.99

Two talented authors have written well-crafted memoirs about the Holocaust in Hungary. In The Smell of Humans (Oxford University Press, 1994), the noted Hungarian poet Erno Szep (1884-1953) provided a coruscating account of his experiences as an elderly, erudite man clinging to life in the Budapest ghetto in 1944-45, and of his survival of a terrible death march. In Castles Burning (Doubleday, 1997), the writer Magda Denes projected herself back into the mind of the young child that she was when she encountered the horrors of that very same ghetto. Unlike Szep's recollections, it is devoid of dates, historical perspective and hindsight; instead, it evokes the confusion, frustration and selfishness of a precocious girl enduring appalling hardships.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn's Chasing Shadows - his posthumous memoir of his childhood, of wartime Hungary and the concentration camps - is significantly different from these two books, but has some uncanny similarities, too. The voice of the cultured, wise survivor occupies nearly three- quarters of the memoir and echoes Szep's in its melancholic tone.

Born in 1930, Gryn grew up in the Carpathian town of Berehovo in what was then Czechoslovakia. A long section of the book was written in 1951, and then hidden away in a drawer until after Gryn's death in 1996. So the reader is confronted by two voices: that of an excitable 13-year-old who, together with his father, is first trying to endure Auschwitz and a slave labour camp, and then the death of his father days after being liberated; and that of the wiser man. Gryn reveals a similar ability to Denes at conveying a traumatised child's bewilderment.

The difference between the older Rabbi's reflections and the child's immersion in the events is powerful. It is salutary (and surprising) to see how Gryn's spirituality and anger grow in equal measure. Although his father occupies a near God-like role in the 1951 manuscript, there is not much of a religious sensibility, and little historical awareness, in the child's voice. The account is more attuned to the nuances of an adventure story - apparently Gryn had been reading a lot of thrillers at the time.

The Rabbi dropped all such literary devices and instead follows his instincts, discussing the moral and historical implications of his early life. Still, he seems to have been much enticed by his pre-war memories; the early chapters marvellously evoke the vanished world of Yiddish customs and the rituals of Gryn's childhood.

Nearly half the population of Berehovo was Jewish, and most of the town's burgeoning wealth was generated by Jewish businesses. Gryn recalls licking honey off the pages of the Book of Leviticus so as to learn that the words of the Torah were sweet. And he pestered the woodcutter in his garden because he thought that the labourer was one of the 36 perfectly righteous men that Jewish legend insists there always are in the world at any given time. Many of the photographs assist with this evocation, but it is disappointing that there is no index. Nor is there a chronology or a glossary of Yiddish terms.

Gryn's complex relationship with Judaism forms a powerful subtext. Time and again, simple ceremonies - such as saying his prayers on Yom Kippur in a slave labour camp - are shown to be life-affirming, even in the most desperate circumstances. At the very end, Gryn addresses the question that nags at the reader throughout: where was God in Auschwitz? In answer, he writes: "I believe that God was there Himself - violated and blasphemed. The real question is 'Where was man in Auschwitz?'"

Gryn's God is as fragile as a flickering flame, yet his belief still illuminates every page of this remarkable book - which is not only an important historical document and engrossing memoir, but the only convincing case for a belief in God that I have ever read.

Francis Gilbert is completing a novel about wartime Hungary